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Three Simple Rules

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Klementiev

The Harmons were proud of their “mom-and-pop” store, which had been in the neighborhood for years. Although it was really nothing more than a convenience store, the customer base was so loyal that the most popular items were always stocked. “Pop” was a fellow named Eddie. As a kid, he bought candy and soda at the very store he now owned. After high school, the place was so run-down that the aged owner sold it to Eddie for a minor share of the monthly profit. The former owner had passed on years ago, so Eddie and eventually his wife Eve assumed full ownership; they brought the building up to code, made some cosmetic improvements, updated the lighting, and added a fresh coat of paint. In no time, “Eddie and Eve’s” was a thriving cornerstone of the neighborhood. Riding the wave of “good enough” success, Eddie spent most days on a lawn chair in front of the store talking with the locals, fixing a bike or two, and serving free coffee to the senior citizens. Someone had taped a small faded sign to the front window, reading “Mayor Eddie’s Office.”

Who’s Who

The Harmons had two sons, Jimmy, 15, and Tommy, 19, and both worked at the store frequently. Both were capable of running the place; they sliced cold cuts, stocked shelves, opened and closed the place, and locked up properly at night.

Jimmy was especially good at making deals. He could talk a vendor into waiting for a payment or two now and then, and was also savvy about investing. The money set aside was beginning to look substantial. Jimmy hoped that the savings would provide enough for their parents to retire comfortably, and that each boy could one day buy a house of his own with cash.

Tommy was more steadfast. He was a saver rather than an investor. Eddie preferred that Tommy open and close the store. He was thorough and ran the store like a high-profile business. He kept tabs on Jimmy’s investments and balanced the books to the penny.

Eve was the mother of the neighborhood, often acting as the “mediator” of disputes between customers, married couples, and any locals who might wander in and say, “Evie—settle something for us.” She listened, evaluated, dispensed her advice, and moved on. “If you choose to listen, is good. If you choose no listen, move on. I don’t chew my cabbage twice,” she would say.

With all of these roles fulfilled, business was good. Eddie was enjoying the fruits of his labor. His investment had paid off well, and he enjoyed waking up every day. His wife was happy too. They added a living suite off the back of the store, and often they stayed there overnight since the boys were getting older and needed less supervision at home. It was a peaceful life, and it looked like the business would sustain the boys long after Eddie and Eve were gone.

Time passed and both boys finished school. Tommy married a woman who was also a hard-working type, and her help around the store was invaluable. She added specialty coffees and teas to the counter by the front door and sold pastries as well. Tommy set up some tables and chairs outside the store, and soon people were enjoying their morning brew with the Harmons through the warmer months and even into a few of the cold ones.

No Secrets

One day, a regular customer named Marge brought her daughter-in-law by, and they drank a couple coffees until Eve took a break and stopped to chat. “This place is a gold mine,” the daughter-in-law chirped. “How do you do it?” Eve shrugged.

“Is not a trick,” Eve said flatly. “Treat people with respect, including and especially your own family—that’s number one. Second—always listen to what people are not saying, but showing you. If they say they want watermelons and you buy them to sell, and nobody buys them—they are telling you they don’t really want them at that price. And then the last thing is most important of all—don’t lie to yourself. Like when we added the coffee and pastries. We put out two tables. People kept coming, so we put out two more—still more people—so we put out four more. Two were always empty, so we put two tables back. Better that people see six full tables all the time instead of always two empty, see?”

Marge’s daughter-in-law scribbled furiously in a tablet. She asked Eve if it was OK if she took a few pictures and did a short article on the store in the local paper. Both Eddie and Eve agreed it would be all right. The article appeared a week later with a photo of Eddie and Eve sitting on the lawn chairs by the mayor’s sign, smiling proudly. Lower on the page was a photo of the brothers with Tom’s wife linked arm in arm between them. This second photo was done at Eve’s insistence. “People need to know the whole family,” she said. “And the whole family needs to feel important,” she told Eddie.

Eddie bought 20 copies of the paper and gave them to his dearest friends. Eve clipped the article and taped it to the glass counter by the meat shelves. Over time, it yellowed and became stained, and the tape peeled, losing its stickiness.

Words Of Wisdom

Years passed and Jimmy eventually married, and he and his wife had three children. Tommy and his wife had two.

Twenty-three years later, Eddie and Eve passed on within 6 months of each other, and the boys retooled the business to meet current needs. They poured a cement pad and added an awning for 20 tables that were filled most days. Although some deli options were available inside, the grocery part of the business had mostly disappeared. The average customer used the free Wi-Fi, enjoyed the variety of coffees, and noshed on freshly baked muffins, cookies, or scones. Specialty ice cream had become a staple in the evening hours. Still a family business, four of the five grandchildren worked there regularly and made a nice living. The family kept the expectations real and the business honest. The family stayed involved in the neighborhood, contributing to the local high school and churches regularly. They also sponsored a Little League team every summer.

Wisely, Jimmy and Tommy never changed the name of Eddie and Eve’s, and the people from the neighborhood pledged their loyalty as their children and grandchildren were taught the valuable lessons of allegiance, being well-grounded, and happiness, like the Harmons.

One grandchild, Little Evie, who chose to depart from the family business, started a company of her own and was highly successful. She and her husband ran a chain of vans and cars that provided services for the elderly, including errands, meals, taxi rides, etc. They recently hired five employees, and someone from the local college asked if they could interview Evie about her keys to success.

The interview went well and the photo that accompanied the article showed Evie pointing to a framed picture of her grandparents sitting in front of the original store. The photo inside the frame was yellowed and stained, but was still preserved. Next to it was another frame with three sentences typed in bold print:

  • Treat people with respect.

  • Listen to what people do, rather than say.

  • Don’t lie to yourself.

The reporter asked Evie if all entrepreneurs should follow this advice, and she responded with a smile, using the accent of her beloved grandmother: “If you choose to listen, is good. If you choose no listen, move on. I don’t chew my cabbage twice.”

I keep hearing about modern businesses, their electronic needs, their forecasting tools, their creative interview techniques that discover the best of the best. Sure, these tools are helpful—I use some of them myself—but are there really any rules more accurate than the three presented above?

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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